How Play-Based Learning Can Co-Exist with Assessment

Dr. McManis, a parent, educator, and psychologist  shares her thoughts on how play-based learning can co-exist with assessment of children through a developmentally appropriate perspective.

Learning Stories are authentic assessment, supported by Educa, used daily in New Zealand and Australia, and becoming more commonplace in North America.

The approach to early childhood education in the United States is influenced by federal and state policies, and differs state by state. Assessment, as Dr McManis describes it below, is increasingly a requirement, in line with US state-based early learning guidelines. The federally-funded program Head Start is also pushing more stringent assessment. It is acknowledged that this pedagogical approach differs from current New Zealand and Australian early learning curriculums and national quality standards.

Many in the field of early childhood education are rightfully concerned about the loss of child-directed play-based, active learning in favor of more teacher-directed, didactic, passive instruction. Along with this has come more emphasis on assessment as an end in itself rather than as one tool for monitoring young children’s growth and development to provide them with more meaningful learning experiences.

For assessment of young children to be authentic, meaningful and therefore useful, it must, and can, be closely linked with how children learn best — through play-based, active learning.  In this article, which offers an American perspective on play-based learning and assessment, we will discuss what this looks like and offer a scenario which illustrates how play-based, active learning can peacefully co-exist with assessment. I’m also including resources for you.

Common Ground For Assessment

A good place to begin is to explore the common ground of being ‘developmentally appropriate’ that exists between learning and assessment…

  • Play-based learning, active learning, is the way young children best progress. It is in this environment that their developmental levels can best be seen. Assessment, such as observation and portfolios, interwoven with what children do as they actively play, allows teachers to see this.
  • It is key to recognize that development and learning are not static, but ever changing. Further, children develop at different rates in different domains (physical, cognitive, social, emotional). These are influenced by and dependent upon the opportunities children have. This is why children need different types of experiences. Administering an assessment that presumes every child will be at the same place at the same time undermines a teacher’s ability to provide these varying experiences and opportunities.
  • When children engage in play-based, active learning they are gaining important skills in many areas in addition to just literacy and mathematics. Just as crucial are other cognitive skills such as language and problem solving; social-emotional skills such as negotiation, self-regulation, curiosity, and empathy; and of course motor skills.

Assessment which is narrowly confined to only ‘academic’ skills can lead to didactic teaching practices that are primarily ‘drill and kill’. Young children have a difficult time with such instruction as it is rather abstract, not relevant to them, and can turn learning into a chore. This can result in children, even of a young age, being bored or distressed. The same goes for assessment.

A Scenario for Linking Learning and Assessment

I’d like to illustrate how through block play with the teacher as partner, much assessment information about a child can be easily gathered. Let’s set this up with a few important things to keep in mind:

  1.  Assessment should be linked to the goals and objectives of the curriculum at your childcare service. It should be used for progress monitoring in a natural cycle of gathering information to guide instructional practices and learning opportunities to help the child meet these goals and objectives. Breaking assessment sessions into short chunks helps you stay focused on key domains and keeps the child and you from becoming overwhelmed.
  2.  Conducting assessment in a structured and organised manner is important so that children’s progress can be well understood. To be meaningful, the assessment should be conducted in a similar way across children. Being prepared ahead of time by constructing or selecting materials (e.g., the building blocks, the recording forms, any device to capture the child’s activities, etc.) will allow the assessment session to go much more smoothly.
  3.  To ensure the assessment is an accurate reflection of the child’s current developmental levels, it is important to make sure they are comfortable, not told this is a “test”, and that the child is not rushed. This will give more reliable results. Some assessment with early learners is best done one-on- one with the child. Having an aide, other staff, or even parent volunteers to engage the other children is needed so the session is not interrupted. Other types of assessment are best done by observing the child in a group.

The following is a scenario for preschoolers that gives you some starter ideas across several learning and developmental domains. Exactly what you measure, and how, will vary depending on your purpose and the child’s age.

Let’s Play and Assess

Have the child join you for block play. This can be on the floor or on a table. Tell the child you want to spend some time together and that you’ll be taking notes and maybe photos, too. These ‘notes’ will be your pre-designed checklist or observation form. Keep in mind that rather than yes/no, it’s more useful to have a scale that can capture nuances.

Having both open-ended play (OEP) and teacher-guided play (TGP) will be needed and I will indicate where each of these fits in the domains below.

Language. Start off with a phrase like “Let’s build something. It can be anything we like”. Once the child appears close to finished, snap a photo and have them tell a story about what he/she has built. You do the same. You can do this before the child to model or after to show comradery, but you will want to do it the same for each child, and of course you can do it both ways across different sessions. Age appropriate specifics you may be looking for are their understanding of story structure and vocabulary. (OEP)

Math. While there are many aspects you can assess, here are a few ideas. While playing, ask for a block in a certain location, such as the one farthest away. Say how many blocks you used for some part of your building and then ask the child how many he/she has used. Keep it to a specific part of the structure and use a number in line with the age range of the child you are working with. For instance, “I used 3 blocks for my tower. How many did you use for your fence?” You can make a simple pattern, such as red block, blue block, red block and ask the child to copy it; or you can ask the child to make their own simple pattern. (TGP)

Motor. Observe as the child builds to determine their degree of fine motor control. Ask the child to demonstrate how many blocks he/she can stack. Observe the child’s ability to manipulate both large and smaller blocks. (TGP, OEP)

Social. Observe the child’s willingness to share blocks and/or space with you, how the child handles not getting to use a certain block, or how well she/he can cooperate to build a structure together. Look for the degree to which the child is open to sharing and cooperating in a positive friendly way, or if they ignore others, or find it difficult to take turns. (OEP)

Emotional. Observe how the child responds when frustrated. For instance, does the child become angry, give up, or persevere relatively calmly? Observe how the he/she responds when your block structure falls over. Does the child laugh in a hurtful way, do they ignore it, or do they demonstrate empathy by verbalizing such as “Oh no!” or “It’s okay!”? Do they use non-verbal communication such as mirroring facial expressions of disappointment or patting you on the arm?

Closing Thoughts

As with many educational practices, assessing children’s abilities is not inherently wrong. As educators, our goal is to design active, play-based opportunities and experiences that best meet each individual child’s needs in order to help them learn and develop to their highest potential. Developmentally appropriate assessment can help us do this.

I hope this article has given you some insight into possibilities for the peaceful co-existence between active, play-based learning and assessment.



Here are some excellent United States resources to help you learn more about developmentally appropriate assessment.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has devoted much attention to this issue. A great starting place is the position statements on curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation.

Several states have also done an excellent job putting resources together. One of these is the Illinois State Board of Education: Early Childhood Education. The information is applicable no matter where you teach.

I do always attempt to offer open-access, free resources, but I do want to recommend one book, which is reasonably priced. You could buy this book as a group and share it. It’s Authentic Assessment for Early Childhood Intervention: Best Practices written by Stephen Bagnato.


Feeney, S. & Freeman, N. K. (2014). Response: Standardized testing in kindergarten. Young Children,  69(1), 84-88.

Mincemoyer, C. C. (2016). Authentic Assessment: What’s It All About? State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University.

Riley-Ayers, S. (2014). Formative Assessment: Guidance for Early Childhood Policymakers.New Brunswick, NJ: Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes.